“Then again I got a story that’s harder than the hardcore cost of the Holocaust/I’m talkin’ ‘bout the one still goin’ on.”
This line from the rap album “Apocalypse ’91” by Public Enemy served, 30 years ago, as my introduction to a rather disturbing, deeply perverse accusation that was prevalent in some left-wing and black-nationalist circles. Basically, it held that the Holocaust was a massive financial and propaganda swindle crafted to divert attention away from the crimes of America and Europe against the people of Africa. As Public Enemy’s frontman Chuck D told it, white politicians draped themselves in hypocritical Holocaust guilt to please their wealthy Jewish puppet masters, while a “real” Holocaust, whose victims were black people, carried on beneath our very gazes.
As someone who’d always thought that the horror of the Holocaust could be used to prevent future genocides, I initially regarded this accusation as one of the uglier, more outlandish anti-Semitic tropes that get churned up from time to time. Sadly, it didn’t disappear. Three decades later, new life is being breathed into this same accusation by a new generation of rappers at just the time when their globalized genre dwarfs other musical forms in terms of popularity—something that was definitely not the case back in 1991.
Towards the end of last week, France was in an uproar over the debut studio album by rapper Freeze Corleone (born Issa Lorenzo Diakhaté) that entered the country’s charts at No. 3. Released on Sept. 11—and that date is not a coincidence—the album, titled “The Phantom Menace,” sold more than 15,000 copies in three days, attracted more than 5 million listens on the Spotify platform within 24 hours and is being played frequently by radio stations online, as well as on FM. By any standards, the album is a hit.
It is also a work steeped in anti-Semitism, hatred of Israel, Holocaust denial, QAnon-style accusations of pedophilia against French politicians and constant references to the Rothschilds; or if you prefer the pithy description of Gerald Darmanin, France’s Interior Minister, “filth.”
One of the acronyms used by Freeze in his lyrics is “R.A.F.” In French, that stands for “rien a foutr,” a phrase that translates into English as “I don’t give a f***.” Freeze declares on his album that he regards the Shoah, the Holocaust, with an “R.A.F” attitude, respectfully name-checking the American Indians and the victims of the slave trade in the same breath. Anyone who disagrees with him is treated with short shrift: “F*** these n*****s like Israel,” he declares on the album’s opening track, called “Freeze Rael.” These sentiments set the tone for an album that angrily pushes “antisemitism, conspiracy theories, and apologies for Hitler, the Third Reich and [Afghan Taliban commander] Mullah Omar,” in the words of LICRA, a French NGO that campaigns against racism and anti-Semitism.
In a thoughtful piece for the news outlet Marianne, the French writer Paul Didier captured the “Holocaust vs. the rest” dynamic that underpins Freeze’s message now, just as it did for previous generations of rappers. Didier recognized that Freeze’s point of entry into anti-Semitism was the conviction that “the emphasis on the suffering of Jews in history, and in the twentieth century in particular, would neutralize the recognition of the crimes of slavery or colonization in Africa.”
“Freeze Corleone clearly puts the memory of the Shoah in opposition to that of other crimes or genocides,” Didier wrote in his article. To commemorate the Holocaust and to respect its victims—6 million Jews together with millions of non-Jews from other targeted groups—by definition means ignoring and disrespecting the already-hidden victims of slavery and colonialism. It is a zero-sum equation.
Acknowledging that arguing with views such as these is too often a waste of time, Didier eloquently explained the deeper falsehoods that underlie Freeze’s various obsessions nonetheless. While Freeze might believe that the Holocaust is everywhere in France, that wasn’t the case until the 1970s, well after the war, as Didier pointed out.
“We would like to explain that the Shoah is not just a part of Western history, but like all crimes, all slavery, all genocides, a part of the history of humanity, because the death or degradation of a human being as a result of his identity (religion, skin color, sexual orientation, etc.) concerns everyone,” continued Didier.
“Above all, we would like to make them understand that this victimizing competition has no meaning, that a Jew who suffers does not take anything away from a black person who also suffers, that we can speak of both slavery AND the Shoah, and that there are humans who are both Jews and blacks and that no one is summed up by his identity and the history of his ‘people,’ ” Didier wrote, even as he grimly recognized Freeze as “the rapper for the age of identity that our societies are going through.”
Freeze is now facing legal proceedings in France, where Holocaust denial and hate speech are criminal offenses. The necessity of applying the law shouldn’t, however, blind us to the fact that a trial like this one would provide enough material for several more albums by Freeze and rappers like him. And however those efforts might differ in terms of style and musical production, they would certainly be united in pushing a message that demeans and denies the Holocaust.
“In France, in 2020, anti-Semitism is still not an obstacle to success,” Paul Didier lamented in his conclusion. As I’ve argued in previous columns, in France you are confronted with an additional layer of extreme violence against Jews that seems almost normalized, even when compared with other countries in Europe. Jews in France have been humiliated, beaten, robbed, raped and murdered by people who share the beliefs expressed by Freeze.
This is no longer an argument about the use and abuse of the Holocaust. The Holocaust has become a stick with which to beat Jews, and in France at least, there’s a growing appetite for it.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.